Should abstentions be recorded?

Lord Norton

When MPs and peers vote, they enter lobbies on either side of the chamber and their names are published as voting either ‘Aye’ or ‘No’ (MPs) or ‘Content’ or ‘Not Content’ (peers).  People outside Parliament thus know how members have voted: it is also a useful resource for researchers, as it facilitates analysis of voting behaviour. 

However, abstentions are not recorded.  A member may deliberately refrain from voting.  This is distinguishable from being unavoidably absent (for example, being abroad on parliamentary business or being stuck in a lift).  The former is a political action and the latter is not.  Some commentators have argued that abstentions should be recorded.  That way, people know which members have made a deliberate decision not to support or oppose a motion.  I have sympathy with this argument, essentially for two reasons.  First, as a parliamentarian, I don’t like ‘hiding’: I would prefer my abstention to be a matter of record.  Second, as someone whose academic career is based on analysing parliamentary voting behaviour, it would facilitate my task enormously!

I recognise that there are problems with the proposal.   One would have official abstentions (those on the record) and unofficial abstentions (those who deliberately stay away).  More importantly, what would one do when the party line is to abstain?  Do all the party members in the House record an abstention?  This raises practical problems.  A few abstentions could be recorded by informing the Clerk at the table, but it would be difficult to manage if one had 100 or more members wishing to abstain.  It would be feasible with electronic voting, but I am very much opposed to that.   Perhaps – and here I think we may have the optimum solution – it could be confined to those votes where members wish to record abstentions where to do so goes against the party line.  That way, there is no need to record names when a party line is to abstain. 

I think this may be worth pursuing, though no doubt there are problems that I have overlooked….

7 comments for “Should abstentions be recorded?

  1. David
    24/06/2008 at 10:33 pm

    On problem with the ‘optimum solution’ is in the Lords the Peers on the Crossbenches and the Bishops. They may want to register an abstention, but do not have a party line.

    Furthermore, is politics not about making choiches, about being in favour or against?

  2. ladytizzy
    25/06/2008 at 2:44 am

    Is there a minimum number of votes required in either House for the count to be valid?

    There will be a variety of reasons why people do not attend a vote including illness and urgent family commitments such as a birth. They should be recorded as being absent rather than abstaining.

    Some must be allowed to abstain if they truly can’t make their mind up on a matter in which they have no particular interest or understanding. Perhaps a ‘Do not know’ vote?

    Electronic voting for those away on parliamentary business could be considered though they would also have to have live access to the debates before deciding which way to vote. Why are you so opposed to e-voting?

    If the whips have told their party members to abstain, then the chief whip should inform the Clerk accordingly.

    Other than for purposes of record-keeping, can you expand on whether you see this as more of an issue for the public or parliament?

    Thanks, Tiz

  3. 25/06/2008 at 3:14 am

    That’s something that always struck me about the reporting of commons votes – the bland ‘abstentions’ pot which you knew contained conscientious abstentions as well as those ‘stuck in a lift’ as you say. As a citizen it would be a good distinction to see…

    Apologies if I’ve missed it elsewhere on the blog but why the objection to electronic voting…?

  4. Matt
    25/06/2008 at 9:09 am

    Lord Norton, am I right in assuming from your post that you aren’t in favour of parliamentarians registering their abstention by voting in both lobbies, Aye and No, during a division? This does allow parliamentarians to register an effective abstention in person, differentiating themselves from those who do not attend to vote. It may not be ideal, but it does fulfil this particular niche at present.

  5. NHackett
    25/06/2008 at 10:26 am

    A possible solution to having a large number of abstentions such as over 100 could be to allow members to designate the reason for the abstention on the following day so that it can be recorded practically. This then would allow members the option of deceiding if they wished it to be known why they abstained and duly recorded in Hansard.

  6. Alex
    25/06/2008 at 9:21 pm

    Wikipedia says…

    “the quorum of the House of Lords is just three members for a general or procedural vote, and 30 members for a vote on legislation. If fewer than three or 30 members (as appropriate) are present, the division is invalid.”

    “the quorum of the House of Commons is 40 members for any vote. If fewer than 40 members have participated, the division is invalid.”

    Is this correct? Can we trust Wikipedia?

  7. lordnorton
    26/06/2008 at 9:34 am

    ladytizzy: the information provided by Alex is correct. The quorum in the Lords is three, other than in a division on legislation (primary or secondary) in which case it is thirty. In the Commons, the quorum is forty, though this is now relevant in practice only when a division is called. It is no longer possible to ‘count’ the House (with the result that the de facto quorum during debates is essentially the same as the Lords). On whether this is essentially an issue for Parliament and the public, I think it is both in that it makes Parliament more transparent and enables the public to know the stance of parliamentarians.

    Cassilis: I thought someone may ask. I think I will do a separate post on my opposition to electronic voting.

    David: I suspect cross-benchers and bishops will only wish to abstain when they have grounds for doing so: i.e. having heard the debate as opposed to abstaining because of being unaware of the arguments. Politics is about making choices, but deliberating abstaining can be a particular choice: it sends out a signal as to one’s position. Having said that, I am one of those who hates to abstain: I much prefer to decide yes or no. That may explain why I am sympathetic to recording an abstention: I do regard it as a significant action.

    Matt: voting in both lobbies is something that some MPs have started doing as a means of recording an abstention. I don’t like this, partly for formal procedural reasons but also for practical reasons. Not everyone checks how people have voted in both lobbies and instead just look at the ‘aye’ list or the ‘no’ list to see who has supported or opoposed a motion. After Sir George Young had stood in the election for the Speakership, he sat down to pen a letter of thanks to all those who voted for him. It was only by chance that he noticed that one person he was writing to had also voted in the No lobby!

    NHackett: yes, that might be one solution; the only problem is that the names would not then appear with the next day’s division lists, but rather appear sometime after the event.

    I am very pleased that the issue has generated such interest. The comments are appreciated.

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